JWR Jeff JacobyBen WattenbergRoger Simon
Mona CharenLinda Chavez

Paul Greenberg Larry ElderJonathan S. Tobin
Thomas SowellMUGGERWalter Williams
Don FederCal Thomas
Political Cartoons
Left, Right & Center

Jewish World Review / Dec. 3, 1998 /14 Kislev, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Games lawyers play

FIRST, A PREFACE ABOUT THE PREFACE that Bill Clinton tacked on to his non-answers to Henry Hyde's questions. No one expected the president to answer each and every question unambiguously, make a full confession and throw himself on the mercy of the court. That kind of response wouldn't have been poll-tested.

And sure enough, no one was surprised. Once questions-and-answers start flying between one side's lawyers and the other's, a familiar degradation sets in: The truth becomes secondary to the law, and the law in turn is swallowed up by the adversary process. The object of the game, and it soon becomes a game, is to avoid all the carefully planted snares. In the end, the game may have little to do with telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

But there was one brief surprise at the very outset of this question-and-answer minuet between the president's lawyers and the Judiciary Committee's. Bill Clinton began his performance with a pious confession. The president admitted that his conduct had been wrong, even though he was careful not to specify what was wrong about it, lest he have to pay any tangible penalty for it.

If his confession was a surprise, the caginess of it was not, for he spoke of atonement without offering any:"For me this long ago ceased to be primarily a legal or political issue and became instead a painful personal one, demanding atonement and daily work toward reconciliation and restoration of trust with my family, my friends, my administration and the American people.''

Add another good, indeed holy, word to those being drained of any meaning in our time. Atonement used to mean making amends. It used to mean offering not just words, but deeds. Its object was to regain one's integrity ---- to be one again with man and G-d. Atonement was inseparable from sacrifice, from making restitution. Fourfold, according to one tradition.

But now the idea of atonement, too, has taken on a poll-spun, focus group-tested sound. By hollowing out the word, the modern penitent can hope to reap the benefits of atonement -- a restoration of trust and purity -- without having to make atonement. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a phrase that seems ever more relevant, called it cheap grace.

Having found a way to confess without confessing to anything that might involve a legal or political penalty, William Jefferson Clinton has found a way to atone without atoning.

The 81 answers themselves came as anti-climax after those two paragraphs of pious effrontery. Bill Clinton's responses were pretty much the kind of thing any good criminal lawyer would recommend to a defendant confronted by the evidence. They admit as little as possible.

At the outset of this interrogation, the president of the United States even declines to admit that he is the country's chief law enforcement officer: 'The President,'' he responds, "is frequently referred to as the chief law enforcement officer, although nothing in the Constitution specifically designates the president as such.''

Mr. Clinton is willing to concede that the Constitution does vest "the executive power'' in"a President of the United States of America'' and that the `law enforcement function is a component of the executive power.'' At the end of all this rodomontade, the reader may find himself a bit dizzy.

Bill Clinton doesn't even remember swearing to tell"the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth'' when he testified in the Paula Jones case.

Can anyone who has ever taken the stand forget that oath? The president does remember swearing to tell the truth, but not ``the precise wording of that oath. ...''

In a curious way, that bit of testimony is believable, or at least consistent with the way Bill Clinton has lived his life. Would a man who claimed he couldn't remember getting his draft notice in the '60s remember much of anything else that smacked of obligation ---- like a solemn oath in court, or his marriage vows?

Some things, unlike winning elections, may not be important enough to our president for him to remember them exactly, like oaths and vows. Which is why those two paragraphs of pious piffle at the beginning of his 81 crafty answers may set a new record for disingenuousness even for William Jefferson Clinton.

We are supposed to believe his stained-glass avowal that this is no longer primarily a political issue for him, but a painful personal one. Yet his personal obligations do not seem to have weighed heavily on him month after month, compared to his need to retain his, yes, political viability.

At this point, both Bill Clinton and a fearful Congress may want nothing more than for this whole thing to just go away. Some suggest a congressional vote of censure. But what would Congress be censuring -- and what would it be condoning? Perjury, obstruction of justice, abuse of power, nothing in particular?

Censure without impeachment is something like confession without atonement. It is a hollowed-out thing that will not satisfy. Because amends will not have been made. The harm -- to truth, to law, to the character of the presidency, to the American people's sense of justice -- will linger in history, unresolved.

Cheap grace, it turns out, is no grace at all. up.


12/01/98: Ms. Magoo strikes again, or: Janet Reno and the law
11/26/98: The most American holiday
11/23/98: Same game, another round
11/18/98: Guide to the perplexed
11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
10/14/98: A new voice out of Arkansas
10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate